Monday, July 27, 2009

Piccadilly (1929): Pabst out-Pabsted... and a new old look for the Phoenix


London sucks, as everyone who lives here knows.
But at least my particular corner of it has more than its fair share of attached film history.
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Within walking distance was the home and studio of the great British pioneer R W Paul (1869-1943), who shot much of his work on the streets of my neighbourhood, and filmed re-enactments of the Boer War on nearby Muswell Hill golf course.
Just up the road from him, his colleague and rival Birt Acres (1854-1918) - the two made the first ever British film together but parted acrimoniously - gave the first ever public exhibition of projected film in Britain in 1896, one month before the Lumière Brothers.
Meanwhile, nearby Highgate Cemetery plays final host not only to creepy, crappy old Karl Marx but also to the far more worthy William Friese-Green.
There is a degree of controversy as to the true extent of Friese-Green's legacy, but he was certainly a hugely important figure, generally credited with inventing the cinematograph and being the first man to ever see moving pictures on a screen, as well as an innovator who contributed to the invention of colour and stereoscopic film. (Sadly, his inventions did not make his fortune: spiralling overheads plunged him into bankruptcy. After a spell in a debtor's prison he lived out his life in obscurity and poverty; he collapsed and died immediately after rising to his feet and spouting gibberish at a meeting of film entrepreneurs in London in 1921.)
What else? Well, from 1911 the production company The British and Colonial Kinematograph Company were based just around the corner from me, shooting their films in and around a customised house, somewhat in the manner of Hammer at Bray studios.
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Then, finally, there is my local cinema. The Phoenix, as it is now known, was built as the Premier Electric Theatre in 1910 and has been here ever since, making it Britain's oldest constantly-operational purpose-built cinema.
The only problem with the Phoenix is the bland, spit and hardboard foyer, and, by and large, the choice of films. There are some rep screenings, but an awful lot of new pseudo-arty/quasi-indie/would be-non-mainstream drek. Just the fact that it isn't Spiderman isn't enough to make it good, you know.
Ah, well. Whether this may change in the future is a moot question - partly because they have an audience suggestions book in which several people have requested more repertory (and one person repeatedly asks for Charles Bronson movies), and partly because it has just been awarded a grant to cover its full restoration to glowing thirties splendour.
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How often do you get the chance to see a silent film in an auditorium where it may well have been shown on its first run? For that I'll forgive the Phoenix anything, even its bizarre habit of inviting Ken Loach over for a Q&A session every time he's got some rotten new film to hawk. "Why are you such a humourless old fraud?", "If you could only obliterate Britain or America which would you choose and why?" and "Can you give me the address of your hairdresser?" are just some of the questions he doesn't get asked at these events.

Ah, but. Piccadilly. A revelation on the big screen, and a strong contender for my favourite silent film of all time, accompanied live, as usual, by Stephen Horne, the only man I've ever seen play a piano and a flute at the same time while watching a film in the dark.
Piccadilly is steeped in the atmosphere of twenties London - as charming and evocative as the American Jazz Age, but very different - and dazzlingly designed and photographed, mainly by imported co-production Germans. It is vivid, and intense, in a manner rarely associated with British films.
The closest comparison would be with Pabst: there is much of Pandora's Box here; but it's even better.
Anna May Wong as Shosho should be as iconic and widely-celebrated as Brooks's Lulu and I honestly don't know why she is not. She is as captivating as Louise, as luminously photographed, and fully as modern in her light, naturalistic acting style. (Also giving a quiet little lesson in screen acting is Charles Laughton, in a short featured cameo as a bad-tempered diner.)

It's a film that has to be seen on a big screen: the BFI's DVD is certainly gorgeous (but for Neil Brand's horrid new score), but the detail - especially of the Piccadilly Club itself - is lost on tv. This is a film that truly overwhelms you, in composition, lighting, performance, and in sheer style.








(Thanks to Silver Strands for the screen shots.)

Benny or Barrymore?


There's a great questionnaire over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which I got to via Allure.
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Some are impossibly hard - I mean, do you have a favourite use of high-definition video on the big screen? - and some are just plain fiendish. But it certainly gets you thinking.
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Here are my answers, and I officially call on absolutely everyone to join in.
Happy head-scratching!
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1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
Tricky. Hate so many, can stand so few. Of those that seem to me to be most tolerable, I suppose the second most tolerable (after Lolita) is The Shining.
2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
Unsimulated sex in mainstream narrative cinema
3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?
Clint. No question.
4) Best Film of 1949.
Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
Tough - but Oscar has it, just.
6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
Is Bob Hope a Catholic?
7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
I can't remember. Another of the many advantages of growing up with BBC-2.
8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?
If only they were all this easy. Mr who?
9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
The Great Escape (1963)
10) Favorite animal movie star.
Mut (A Dog's Life [1918])
11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
The Moon is Blue (1953)
12) Best Film of 1969.
Taste the Blood of Dracula
13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
Theatrically - Piccadilly (1929). (It was yesterday, by the way: I have been to the cinema since 1929, albeit only once or twice.) On DVD - The Tuxedo with Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt in sexy specs.
14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
No answer possible. I don't have a second favourite disease either. Or a second favourite fascist.
15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
So many blogs.
16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji?
Purely on the basis of a Google image search, I'd have to go with Meiko.
17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
Jennifer Tilly, hands down.
18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Freaks (1932)
19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
See question 14
20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
21) Best Film of 1979.
Moonraker
22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
George Zucco's Mexican Flying Serpent
24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
The Conversation is the only one I like. Of the rest, the only ones I can see anything in at all (ie: interesting visual style) are One From the Heart and Dracula, and of the two, the one with least else wrong with it is One From the Heart.
25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
Freddy Got Fingered
26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.
The screen tests in The Black Dahlia. But everything else the man's ever done: just terrible.
27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
Any moment in Singin' in the Rain. But two-strip is more fun.
28) Favorite Alan Smithee film.
The Birds 2: Land's End (1994)
29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?
No idea who either of these characters are, but it's a pretty fair bet the correct answer is Walter Matthau.
30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
Anything Else (2003)
31) Best Film of 1999.
Had no ready answer for this so did a net search - turns out it was probably the bleakest year for movies in the medium's history: American Beauty, Star Wars 4, Notting Hill, Being John Malkovich, The Mummy, The Spy Who Shagged Me, In Dreams, The Bone Collector... and I could go on. How did we get through it?
Yet, somehow, amidst all this madness and shallow ambition, they accidentally made the best film of the whole decade: The Straight Story.
32) Favorite movie tag line.
"The Hero Is A Berk." (Top Secret)
33) Favorite B-movie western.
Apache Drums (1951) - a great Val Lewton movie still awaiting its due.
34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of his or her work.
W. Somerset Maugham
35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?
Oh Carole.
36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
The girl in the radiator in Eraserhead
37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
Taking the question at face value: purveyor of stereotyping. Strange question though.
38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet.
Charles Laughton, Fay Wray, Cecil B De Mille, Clara Bow, Robert Benchley. (Jennifer Love Hewitt came in sixth.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Patricia Roc: Always the bridesmaid


Nearly three million British cinemagoers annually voted for their favourite British films and stars in the Daily Mail National Film Awards, inaugurated in 1945 to “acknowledge the new prestige of British films, won in the worst days of the war.”

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Margaret Lockwood held the title of top female star in the ’46, ’47 and ’48 polls, but in third, sixth and third place respectively was an actress whose name, perhaps, no longer comes readily to those recalling the great British stars of the forties: Patricia Roc.

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There's something about the British film industry - because it's small and insular, the pressure on the stars, and the relentlessness of the scrutiny to which they are subjected, tends to be much greater than in Hollywood, where it is more evenly spread over a vastly larger pool of talent. British star careers have a tendency towards rapid ascent and fall, as minor fluctuations in popularity and box-office returns are magnified beyond reason. F. Maurice Speed's Film Review Annual calls 1948 Patricia's comeback year, in that it saw her return to third place from her previous ranking of sixth: how ignominious to be the sixth most popular actress in the country!

And indeed, Lockwood's own descent after '48 was more or less instant. There's something ruthless about the British in this regard. They like clean starts. Nobody went to see George Formby in George In Civvy Street (1946), his big post-war picture, even though his jagged-toothed cheeriness helped them win it. He never made another movie. They kicked out Winnie and they kicked out George and they kicked out Margaret.

And Patricia, always hovering around the pinnacle of stardom and never quite hitting the gong, was never allowed to become the steadily-working, confident, popular actress she should have been. It's as if she was always auditioning, always under pressure.

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It’s a shame, because as well as being a great natural beauty, she appeared in several of the decade’s most successful and memorable films, and her cheery, peaches and cream demeanour enlivened many more. But then, perhaps that wholesome cheeriness is part of the problem.

Patricia Roc was the good girl of forties films, the alter ego, in a sense, of Lockwood, with whom she co-starred three times, and who had successfully changed her screen image during the war years from ingénues to bodice-bursting villainesses in a run of hugely successful melodramas for Gainsborough studios. With all eyes on Lockwood it was easy to overlook the contributions made by Roc.

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For instance, take The Wicked Lady (1945). It's their most famous collaboration and, for both of them now, probably their best-remembered film. Lockwood is the one who gallops through the film robbing stagecoaches, sneaking through secret passages, killing saintly old men with poisoned blackcurrant cordial, and getting raped by highwaymen who have just survived their own hanging. Meanwhile, Patricia, as Lockwood’s childhood friend, tiptoes about being pure and forgiving and good, standing nobly by as the wicked Lady Skelton callously steals both her fiancé and the audience’s attention.

Roc later admitted: “The character infuriated me. She was a saccharine-sweet little ninny who stood back and allowed another woman to snatch her lover. The only time I had any respect for her was when she lost her temper and walloped Margaret Lockwood across the face.”

It doesn't matter that Roc is fully the equal of Lockwood as a beauty, nor that her costumes proved equally troublesome to the Hays Office, who demanded costly, cleavage-concealing retakes before it could be passed for sensitive American eyes. She simply doesn't get a look-in.

With Lockwood cornering the market in Gainsborough's bad girls, Roc carved herself a niche as, in her own words, “the bouncy, sexy girl next door that mothers would like their sons to marry and the sons wouldn't have minded.”

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................ Patricia Roc: The sons wouldn't have minded

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Patricia Roc was born Felicia Herold in 1915 in Hampstead, the adopted daughter of a Dutch-Belgian father and a half-French mother.

She was educated at Francis Holland School, Regent's Park, in London and Bertram Gables Boarding School in Kent, before a spell at a Parisian finishing school and, finally, RADA. From here she made her stage debut in a 1938 London revue, and was instantly snapped up by Alexander Korda and then signed long-term by J. Arthur Rank, who called her "the archetypal British beauty."

Over the next few years she appeared in a number of popular films, attracting good reviews and appreciative audience response, but it was the war that pushed her to the forefront of screen stars.

Her fresh-faced beauty and healthy, optimistic demeanour seemed tailor-made for the times, and two films in particular capitalised on this quality magnificently. After a scene-stealing role in support of Vera Lynn in We'll Meet Again (1942), she was cast by producers Launder & Gilliatt in the episodic film Millions Like Us (1943), now recognised as a classic of British cinema for its affectionate but unsentimentalised portrait of the British home front. Roc’s performance as a factory worker who falls for a young airman subsequently killed in action was powerful and moving; in particular her character’s stoicism in the face of tragedy struck an understandable chord with contemporary audiences.

As a result, Roc’s screen image became emblematic of the best spirit of the ‘people’s war’, and Launder lost no time in recasting her alongside Phyllis Calvert in 2,000 Women (1944), as inmates of a French concentration camp giving covert assistance to the underground.

That same year, again with Calvert, she made her first foray into Gainsborough melodrama in Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944), and was then paired for the first time with Lockwood in the Cornish-set weepie Love Story, the everyday story of a rugged young man, slowly going blind, falling in love with a terminally-ill concert pianist.

The beautiful seaside settings, specially-composed Cornish Rhapsody and general air of romantic fatalism made it a huge hit, but the really big one was The Wicked Lady the following year, one of those films that drives a wedge of incomprehension and mistrust between critics - who loathed and mocked it - and audiences - who gobbled it down and begged for more. (And got it; in the form of Jassy (1947), with Lockwood as a gypsy girl with the gift of second sight, and Roc as the good girl again.)

In real life, Roc and Lockwood were firm friends, even though they were always cast as love-rivals, for Dermot Walsh in Jassy and Stewart Granger in Love Story (1944), though the latter at least gave Roc a chance to be the spiteful one, payback for "all those namby-pambies I played", as she once put it.

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Warning to American readers: DO NOT look at this woman's cleavage

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In 1946, she became the guinea-pig for a new exchange scheme engineered between Rank and America’s Universal Pictures, whereby each would loan a star to the other. Patricia was chosen to make the trip to Hollywood, where she starred in the western Canyon Passage, again as the losing corner of a love triangle (with Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward) though an off-screen romance with Ronald Reagan was reportedly more successful.

More roles in British films followed, and at last she seemed to be getting the chance to be passionate and uninhibited.

The Brothers (1947), her own favourite of her films, is fantastic, with Roc barefoot as a provocative orphan causing erotic consternation in a Scottish fishing village. The Perfect Woman (1949), a very silly but very funny farce, casts her as a glamour girl who substitutes for a robot look-alike created by her inventor uncle. But though she could not have known it at the time, her career was entering its final phase.

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In 1949 she married André Thomas, the French cinematographer of One Night With You (1948), her only musical. (She had married first in 1939, at the age of 24, to a Canadian osteopath twenty years her senior but the marriage was not a success and lasted only a few years.)

Following her marriage to Thomas she moved with him to Paris, and found work in French and Italian cinema. Thomas died in 1954, and in 1962 she married a third time, to businessman Walter Reif. Shortly after, she announced her retirement from acting, and the couple bought a house on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. After his death in 1986, she lived here alone until she too passed away at the age of 88, a day before New Year’s Eve, 2003.

If she had thought herself forgotten, however, she would have been pleased at how the British obituaries reeled off her impressive list of credits and recalled her years spent among the most popular of all British stars.

One called her the epitome of the English rose, and several quoted her typically good-natured opinion of her years of stardom:

“I enjoyed making those films, and, as well as having no fault with the actors I worked with, I remember the make-up girls, the wardrobe people, all the crew members, with true affection.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Happy 99th, Gloria Stuart!

The great Gloria Stuart, star of Roman Scandals, The Old Dark House and Gold Diggers of 1935, was 99 on July 4th, and while there's nothing much I can add beyond what I wrote here this time last year, I couldn't let the occasion pass without wishing many happy returns (albeit belatedly) to the world's most important living film star.
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Sadly, Dorothy Layton, co-star of a number of Laurel and Hardy shorts, died just two days earlier at the age of 96. This means that, in addition to their many other accomplishments, Gloria and Mary Carlisle are now the last of the 1932 WAMPAS Baby Stars.
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Alongside her many great movie credits, a poster on the IMDB listed the following reasons why Gloria should be treasured:
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She remembers the way California used to look even before the 1st World War; the beaches were covered in sea weed and the trees were only a foot high. From 1918-1924 she practiced dancing and spent hours listening to gramophone records which were brand new at the time, loved to watch silent movies... was a bad girl at school, always dressing like a flapper, smoking and sneaking into nightclubs; graduated in 1927; did theatre work, then became a journalist; met a sculptor in 1929 and became a nude model, they later married; became an actress then toured the world in 1939 watching the different countries prepare for war... did more theatre work; 1950's and onwards became a painter and writer. She still acts and is in good health.
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Here's to her hundredth!
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

David Niven: “It’s my absolute duty to be chirpy”


David Niven was a greatly under-rated actor, especially by himself.
In his best selling autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon, he described himself as one who has had “the good fortune to parlay a minimal talent into a long career.”
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In truth, of course, it wasn't minimal at all, merely instinctive, which is something altogether different and much rarer.
It is too easy to forget, because circumstances conspired to ensure that he made surprisingly few great films, just how good he would have been in so many others.
He is one of the few actors, for instance, that you can imagine taking over a Cary Grant role. Very few actors could step into shoes tailored expressly for Grant - but imagine Niven in just about any Grant movie and don't you think he'd have gotten away with it? I can't think of many - perhaps any - others who could.
In particular, I think it's a terrible shame that Hitchcock never got his hands on him. He would have been ideally suited to something like North by Northwest or To Catch a Thief. I suppose The Pink Panther was about as close as he got.
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Throughout his life, Niven went to considerable lengths to maintain the illusion that he owed his fame and fortune to sheer luck, and certainly not to effort, and that his popular image as a good-natured and effortlessly sophisticated rogue was all there was to him.
Charlton Heston recalls a very funny story in his published diaries The Actor's Life, about the time that they appeared in the film 55 Days at Peking (1965):
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I remember sitting at one of the press parties we gave about this time, earnestly explaining the politics of the Boxer Rebellion at great length to some weary journalist. In one of the pauses, I overheard David at the next table talking to his journalist: "Of course, if we get involved in the politics, we're lost."
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But in reality his laid-back flippancy and happy-go-lucky demeanour veiled a man of great intelligence and integrity, who once told an interviewer: “life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.”
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James David Graham Niven was born into a military family in Belgravia in 1910, the youngest of four children. When he was five, his father was killed at Gallipoli, and his mother re-married to a man who, it has recently been suggested, had been her lover for some time, and was probably Niven’s father. Whatever the truth, it is certain that there was no love lost between Niven and her new husband, and it was largely on account of mutual antagonism that he spent most of his childhood in a succession of boarding schools.
In time he was enrolled at Stowe, where he excelled at cricket, rugby, boxing and fencing, and from there to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, from which he graduated in 1930 as a second Lieutenant.
Posted to Malta with the Highland Light Infantry, however, Niven quickly became bored, and his frustration with the inactivity of peacetime army life brought out his rebellious streak.
One evening in 1933, he had made dinner plans with an attractive female acquaintance, only to find that he was required to attend a compulsory lecture on machine guns, given by a distinguished Major General. At the end of the tedious monologue, the speaker asked if there were any questions. Niven raised his hand. “Could you tell me the time, sir?” he asked, “I have to catch a train.”
As a result, he found himself arrested on a charge of insubordination. With the connivance of his guard he escaped from a first-floor window, took a ship to New York and resigned his commission by on-board telegram.
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After a few months of drifting, during which he tried his hand as a dealer in whisky and even a promoter for a horse rodeo, he found himself in Hollywood in 1934 where, having been told he would make a good actor, he signed on at Central Casting as ‘Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008’.
A few small roles followed, but he made far more of a name for himself in Hollywood society than he did on screen, and it wasn’t long before producers were hearing of this dashing new British import. As a result, he was signed by producer Sam Goldwyn to a seven year contract.
In 1936 he co-starred with Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Instantly recognising a kindred spirit in the notorious hellraiser, the two became close friends and eventually moved in together, in a house they nicknamed ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’. Their escapades here - bawdy, boozy, foolhardy and sometimes not strictly legal - passed into Hollywood legend, and are lovingly recounted in Niven’s books The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring On the Empty Horses.
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By 1939 he was on the verge of stardom, with major roles in Wuthering Heights, The Prisoner of Zenda, Raffles and several others consolidating his growing popularity with international audiences. In particular, he proved the ideal combination of love interest and comic support in two delightfully eccentric romantic comedies: Bachelor Mother with Ginger Rogers, and Eternally Yours with Loretta Young.
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He joined the commandos, took part in the invasion of Normandy, and ended the war with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Despite his subsequent reputation as one of the film world’s greatest raconteurs, however, he rarely spoke of his war experiences.
He once explained his reticence by recalling an occasion when two of his American friends had asked him to find the grave of their son in a military cemetery in the Ardennes. “I found it where they told me I would,” he explained, “but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.”
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Returning to Hollywood in 1946 (after giving one of his very best British performances in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, above) he found that he had to rebuild his career from scratch. But his professional difficulties were dwarfed by an appalling personal tragedy.
After a courtship of just two weeks, he had married Primula Susan Rollo, or Primmie as he called her, in England in 1940. They were blissfully happy, and had two sons.
Just six weeks after their return to Hollywood, the couple attended a party at the home of actor Tyrone Power. During a game of hide and seek, Primmie walked through what she had thought was the door of a cupboard, only to tumble down a stone staircase leading to the cellar. She was rushed to hospital with a fractured skull and underwent an emergency brain operation, but died the following day. She was just twenty-eight years old.
Niven recalled the months that followed as the worst of his life.
He attempted suicide, surviving only because his gun failed to fire properly.
Largely so that his sons should not be deprived of a mother he remarried in 1948, to Swedish model Hjordis Tersmeden, but though they never divorced, the marriage was not happy.

As his spirits gradually returned, so did the offers of film work, and he entered his most productive and popular years as an actor. As a virtual synonym for English charm and sophistication, he appeared through the fifties and sixties in such films as Around the World In Eighty Days (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1962) and The Pink Panther (1963) in which, it is often forgotten, his was the lead role. He also received an Oscar for his fine performance in Separate Tables (1957), and found huge new acclaim as an author and chat show guest.

In 1979 he boarded a plane to New York and found himself sat next to an American journalist called Tom Brokaw.
Brokaw later told Niven’s son that for most of the flight Niven had been the most sparkling and delightful company; witty, warm, friendly to all, and hilariously funny.
Then shortly before landing he suddenly said, “The most terrible thing happened to me today,” and went on to confide that he had just been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
Brokaw asked what that meant, and Niven explained without the least self-pity that it was an incurable degenerative condition, that he would slowly lose the use of his limbs and his voice, and that he only had another year or so to live.

When he died, the outpouring of sadness and affection from colleagues, friends and fans was immense. Barry Norman wrote that, of all the film stars he profiled in his tv series The Hollywood Greats, Niven was unique in that not a single person he interviewed had anything but the warmest praise for him.
But perhaps the most telling epitaph came from the card attached to an enormous wreath sent to his funeral by the porters of Heathrow Airport. .
It read: “To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.”

Modern films? Thanks, but no thanks


In his essay The Decline and Fall of the Movie, Leslie Halliwell uses the following quote from Jonathan Swift to encapsulate his attitude to the cinema, and in particular to explain how his love of Hollywood's golden age could sit happily alongside an almost total disinterest in and disdain for its present:
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"I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth."
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It's an opinion I more or less share. I too have my Peters and Johns - off the top of my head: Jaws, The Fog, Ghost World and The Straight Story would top the list - but the overwhelming majority of post-sixties cinema leaves me cold.
In particular, I have a loathing for the supposedly great works of seventies Hollywood - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, that one in space with the laser swords and the little robots, forget the name of it for a minute - that verges on the certifiable.
Even films I saw ten years ago and liked rarely hold up for me once a little water has flowed between us. Titanic, for instance, I initially had pegged as a glorious, old-style tear-jerker: the petty resentments of stuck-up critics who mocked the script and performances, I confidently predicted, would come to look as transparent and silly as those few who tried to write off Gone With the Wind. I was amazed to watch it again recently and see that they were right: it's a terrible film. Even the effects no longer impress overmuch: what we took to be realistic was in fact merely state of the art, and the trickery already looks almost as distancing, and fully as much a product of its time, as that of a fifties sci-fi movie.
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Now, by and large, nobody gets uppity when I say that I hate the taste (and indeed the thought) of mushrooms. But for some reason I've often noticed people getting strangely resentful when I say that I don't watch new movies, listen to modern music or watch any television at all, as if I was expressing a judgement about their taste rather than mine.
Some of the more popular responses:
I'm being pretentious.
I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It's a shame I'm so unyielding, because I don't know what I'm missing.

So when I read Kate's post on how she doesn't like new films I was waiting with baited breath to see what the fall-out would be.
Like me, she is a hardliner:

I know everyone around here is pretty obsessed with older films. But I'm not just pro-older films, I'm very anti-newer films. I usually get a very twisted, "you MUST be kidding me" look on my face when anyone, but anyone, asks me to go to see a new film in theaters. And no, renting it from Netflix won't mask the fact that it was made in 2004. It is still a new film, be it in a theater or at home. I'm prone to sulk in my bedroom when my family (who usually share my strict pre-1970 rule) cave in and rent something new.


The response was pretty supportive on the whole, but on other related posts dotted here and there we did begin to see some of that old annoyance rearing its head; in particular the objections that one is being merely 'silly', and also 'elitist'.
But what, on the face of it is so strange, or inconsistent, or hard to accept, about liking old movies and disliking new ones?
And what is elitist about having, and expressing, a preference?
That's the conundrum I intend getting to the bottom of here.

Firstly, though it baffles me personally, there is of course no a priori reason why a person cannot like both classic and modern cinema.
The thing that strikes me as odd is the almost automatic supposition that if one likes the former, one would, or should, like both.
It's a supposition that rarely works the other way round, I've noticed. I wouldn't expect anyone who rushed out to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ("screenplay by Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro's Transformers action figures": now there's a credit to fill you with hope for the future of the medium) to enthuse about Monroe Owsley, have strong opinions about whether Charley Chase is better in silents or talkies, or feverishly collect Irene Ware films.
Yet when I, to whom all of the above applies, say that I'd rather spend a week underground with a mobile phone salesman than another minute looking at Will Ferrell's face... suddenly I'm the one with the big attitude.
I have known people laugh when I say I regularly watch black and white films, as if I'd said I liked reading Beowulf by candlelight in a Hebridean cave. Black and white! The idea! I've met people who thought I was joking when I said I liked silent films. (Often old people, dismayingly enough.)
Well, choosing to spend ninety minutes in the company of Tom Cruise, or Lars von Trier, or Ken Loach, or Wes Anderson strikes me as pretty wacko too.

But the much more important point is this.
Of course there are some modern films that I have enjoyed, especially from non-English-speaking Europe, where, for the moment at least, both depth and style remain fashionable, but even these do not strike me as examples of the same thing as the classic movies with which I am obsessed.
I mean, what do they really have in common?
Just this (and, increasingly, not even this): they are both forms of visual representation created by passing a beam of light through a strip of celluloid on which photographic impressions of human activity have been recorded.
That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's the common factor. That's the obvious and vital link that makes Mr Deeds Goes To Town an example of the same thing as Being John Malkovich, and makes me a crank or curmudgeon for loving the one like a firstborn child and hating the other with the kind of passion I ordinarily reserve for religious fanatics and salad.
How dare I?

Yet as I understand it, if you love old Hollywood, not just the list of approved masterpieces but the whole world and scent and flavour of old Hollywood, then you are in love with something that simply does not exist anymore, regardless of how good the occasional half-watchable film may still be on its own terms.
Classic Hollywood cinema is - and I mean this not as a judgement but as a simple statement of fact - a unique phenomenon, product of a unique set of circumstances and individuals, operating in a unique way at a unique point in time.
The studio system, long gone, produced a body of work that is to cinema generally what an illuminated medieval manuscript is to books generally. Shot almost entirely in studios, by contract artists, operating under an imposed censorship system, so that each studio had its own instantly recognisable atmosphere, regular stable of players, and totally artificial style.
This is what I love.
When that changed, as first the studio system and then the Hays Code collapsed, a clear before and after line can be drawn in the product.
The stars migrate from studio to studio, individual studio styles disappear, real locations, widescreens and other forms of pseudo-realism replace the artistic creations of the old studio photographers and set designers with drab singularity, and uniformity of manner and message gives way to a thousand discordant voices all vying to see who can shout loudest for your dollar.
These things, that make the earlier films so fundamentally different from what followed, are the specific things that attract me to them.
I have no passion for modern cinema. Even among the films I admired, hardly any have added something to my life, or given me any strong desire to see them again. Whereas if you told me I had just watched The Old Dark House for the last time I'd cry and fall over. Films are an interest, old Hollywood is a passion.
That's the difference.


or...
It's a judgement call and I'm making it.

Now, this all seems so straightforward to me that I wonder if the problem isn't somewhere in the very terminology we use.
'Classic' is a slippery term. On the one hand it can be used as a judgement - to be deemed a classic is a marker of quality - on the other it is used as a description, to mean films of a certain age. (Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide covers all films pre-1960.)
For most people I think it means a combination of the two - a retrospective bestowing of approval on a film that has been around long enough to have stood the test of time, hence the tentative use of phrases like 'modern classic' or 'future classic' to refer to Fargo or American Beauty or Christ knows what other ordure happens to be flavour of the month this month.
I'd like to see these two meanings divorced, so that we can talk about classical and modern cinema just as we talk of classical and modern music. Yes, everyone knows classical music is better than modern music, especially those who claim otherwise, but that's not what the term means. It refers to a style only, and any related associations of higher quality spring incidentally from the terms of the drawn distinction itself.
So how about continuing to use 'classic' as a qualitative term to recognise individual quality, but 'classical' as a quantitative term to define that whole world, and way of doing things, that existed between the creation of American cinema and the collapse of the original structures and strictures, somewhere in the fifties.

One final point. I do realise I have spoken only about old and new mainstream Hollywood.
Many have written that yes, American pop cinema is a parched field of rotting weeds, but salvation is at hand in the great third way: avant-garde, art and independent cinema.
Personally, I find even less here to attract me than in the average Hollywood blockbuster. If classical Hollywood is Mozart - or at least Puccini - and modern Hollywood is Justin Timberlake, then this lot is Stockhausen. (I even saw Peter Greenaway's name come up - a sobering reminder that there are indeed corners of the world where this pompous buffoon retains the respect long withdrawn by those of us who have to share a country with him.)
I really don't mind whether I see Marley and Me again or not, but if you wanted me to sit through Broken Flowers a second time you'd have to nail me down.
More genuine creativity, inspiration, effort and love of cinema went into Police Academy 6 than Being John Malkovich.